All story: A Founder of Ten Towns
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A Founder of Ten Towns

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

UPON a grassy plateau, overlooking the flats of the Owl River, was spread out Pezpeza's town. The borders of the table-land were defined by the river's bed, and it was sufficiently high for the little inhabitants to command the valley both up and down for a considerable distance. Shungela Pahah, or Fox Ridge, stretched upward on the horizon, and the rough country back of it formed many ravines and gulches for the solitary habitations of wolves and foxes.
No prettier site could be imagined for a town of the prairie-dog people, among whom there is no more enterprising frontiersman than Pezpeza. Although it was situated in plain view of one of the large summer camps of the wild Sioux, the little people had been left unmolested. The wild men lived then in the midst of the greatest game region of the Dakotas, and, besides, they had always looked upon the little mound-builders as having once been real people like themselves.
All over the plateau, which was semicircular in form, were scattered hundreds of mounds, and on that particular morning, when the early Sioux hunter rode by upon his favorite pony, every house was alive with the inhabitants. Upon the mounds of the old deserted houses stood the faithful and good neighbor, Pezpeza ta ayanpahalah, Pezpeza's herald, the owl ; for if any house is left vacant, he immediately occupies it. Here and there, upon a sun-baked mound, lay coiled the other neighbor, Sintayhadah, the rattlesnake.
The herald had announced the coming of the wild Red man upon his hunting pony; therefore every prairie-dog had repaired to the top of the mound beside his dwelling. Some stood upon their hind-legs, that they might better see for themselves the approaching danger, and from this place of safety they all shrilly scolded the intruders; while the little herald, who had done his duty and once more fulfilled his unspoken contract with his hosts to be their scout and crier, perched calmly upon a chosen mound and made his observations.
In the middle of the town, upon a large mound, there stood an unusually large dog. When the warning was given, he had slowly dragged himself outside. His short, thick fur was much yellower than that of the others, a sign of advancing age; and while the citizens were noisy in their protests, he alone was silent. It was Pezpeza, the founder of this town and of many another, the experienced traveller. His old friend, the faithful herald, who had just given warning, perched not far away. These two had journeyed together and shared each other's hard- ships, but Pezpeza was the prime mover in it all, and there was none wiser than he among his people.
Pezpeza' s biographer and interpreter tells thus of his wonderful frontier life and adventures.
Pezpeza was one of many children of an old couple who lived upon the Missouri River bottoms. He had learned while yet small that the little prairie-owl was their very good neighbor and friend. He had repaired and occupied one of their abandoned houses. It was generally understood by the little mound -builders that this quiet, unassuming bird notifies them of approaching danger; and, having no bad habits, the prairie-dogs had tacitly accepted them as desirable and useful townsfolk. The owl, for his part, finds a more convenient home and better food in the towns than he could possibly find elsewhere, for there are plants peculiar to the situation which attract certain insects, mice, and birds, and these in turn furnish food for the owls.
Their common neighbor, the rattlesnake, lay at times under a strong suspicion of treachery, and was not liked any too well by the other two. However, the canny and cold-hearted snake had proved his usefulness beyond any doubt, and was accepted under strict and well-understood conditions. He was like the negro in the South he was permitted to dwell in the same town, but he must not associate with the other two upon equal terms. It is clear that the dog and the owl together could whip and terrorize the snake and force him to leave the premises at any time if they felt so disposed, but there is a sufficient reason for allowing him to remain. The wolf, coyote, fox, swift, and badger, all enemies of the little mound-builders, will not linger long in the neighborhood of rattlesnakes, and this is equally true of the Red hunter.

The coyote and badger could easily lie flat behind the mound and spring upon the prairie-dog when he comes out of his hole. The Sioux boy could do the same with his horse-hair noose. But these wild hunters, with full knowledge of the deadly rattlesnake, dare not expose themselves in such a fashion. The snake, on his side, gets his food much easier there than anywhere else, since all kinds of small birds come there for seeds. Further, his greatest enemies are certain large birds which do not fear his poison, but swoop down, seize him, and eat him in mid-air. From this danger he is safer in a dog-town than elsewhere, owing to the multitude of holes, which arc ingeniously dug upward and off at one side from the main burrow, and are much better than the snake can provide for himself.
Pezpeza was like all the young people of his tribe. He loved play, but never played with the snake young people on the contrary, he would stand at a safe distance and upbraid them until they retired from his premises. It was not so with the children of the little herald, the owl. In fact, he had played with them ever since he could re- member, and the attachment between them became permanent. Wherever Pezpeza goes, the little owl always comes and sits near by upon some convenient mound. If any hawk is in sight, and if he should see it first, he would at once give the warning and Pezpeza would run for his house.
Every day some prairie-dog left the town in quest of a new home. The chief reason for this is over-population hence, scarcity of food; for the ground does not yield a sufficient quantity for so many.
One morning, as he was coming out of their house, Pezpeza found his father lying dead within the entrance. At first he would not go by, but at last he left the house, as did the rest of the family. None returned to their old home. The mother and children built a new house on the edge of the town, dangerously near a creek, and the old home-stead was after that owned by a large rattle-snake family who had always loafed about the place. The new home was a good one, and the new ground yielded an abundant crop, but they were harassed by the wolves and wild-cats, because they were near the creek and within easy approach.
Pezpeza was out feeding one morning with a brother when all at once the owl gave the warning. They both ran for the house, and Pezpeza got in safe, but his brother was carried off by a wolf.
When he came out again, the place was not like what it used to be to him. He had a desire to go somewhere else, and off he started without telling any one. He followed an old buffalo-trail which lay over the plain and up the Owl River.
The river wound about among the hills and between deeply cut banks, forming wide bottom - lands, well timbered with cotton-woods. It was a warm day of blue haze in the early spring, and Pezpeza. ran along in excellent spirits. Suddenly a warning screech came from behind, and he lay flat, immovable, upon the path. Ah, it is his friend the young herald, the owl playmate! The owl had seen his young friend run away over the prairie, so he flew to join him, giving no thought to his people or his own affairs.
The herald flew ahead and perched upon a convenient mound until his friend came up; then he went ahead again. Thus the two travelled over the plain until they came to a point where many buffalo skulls lay scattered over the ground. Here, some years before, the Red men had annihilated a herd of buffalo in a great hunt.
As usual, the herald flew ahead and took up his position upon a buffalo skull which lay nose downward. The skull was now bleached white, but the black horns were still attached to it. The herald sat between these honis.
Meanwhile Pezpeza was coming along the buffalo-path at a fairly good speed. Again he heard the danger-call and ran for the nearest skull to hide. He was glad to find that the thin bones of the nose were gone, so that he could easily enter it. He was not any too quick in finding a refuge, for a large eagle swooped down with a rush and sat by the skull. Pezpeza had crouched in the inner cavity, and when he was discovered he made a great show of indignation and fight. But the eagle, having made a careful study of the position of his intended victim, finally flew away, and in due time Pezpeza proceeded on his journey.

He did not go far, but when he had found a level, grassy plateau, commanding all the approaches, he began without delay to dig a home for himself, for he is not safe a moment without a home. The herald sat a little way off upon a stray bowlder, and occasionally he would fly out for a short distance and then return.
The sun hovered over Fox Ridge, and long columns of shadow were cast by the hills. Pezpeza, weary with his journey and the work of digging a home at least deep enough for a night's occupancy, had laid himself away in it to sleep. The herald, as usual, constituted himself a night-watch, and perched upon the newly made mound. There he sat with his head sunk deep in his soft feathers.
No sooner had the sun set in the west than the full moon appeared in the east, but the owl still sat motionless. He did not move even when a gray wolf came trotting along the buffalo- trail. When he came opposite the mound he stopped and held his muzzle low. At last he cautiously advanced, and when he was dangerously near the owl flew away and the wolf rushed upon the mound, and stood for a while peering into the hole.
It was now the herald's turn to annoy. It is true he cannot do anything more than bluff, but he is skilled in that. Especially at night, his gleaming eyes and the snapping of his bill, together with his pretentious swoop, make even the gray wolf nervous, and it was not long before he had decided to go farther.
The next morning the enterprising town- builder earnestly went about completing his home, although one could see only the little mound and the cup-shaped entrance all else was deep underground. Every day there were arrivals, singly or in couples, and now and then a whole family. Nearly all brought their heralds with them, and these, likewise, came singly or in pairs. Immediately, each couple would go to work to prepare a dwelling for themselves, for they are not safe with- out them, and, besides, they seem to believe in independent homes. Thus in one moon the town became a respectably large one.
Shunkmanitoo, the wolf, had many a time trotted over the plateau and seen either a lone buffalo bull grazing or lying down chewing his cud, or an antelope standing cautiously in the middle that he might better see the approach of any danger. Now, after a few days' absence, he found a flourishing village, and one by no means devoid of interest and attraction.
Every bright day the little people played "catch-the-laugh." It is so called by the Red people. When all were outside their houses, one would jump into the air and make a peculiar sound, half squeak and half growl. The nearest one would take it up, and so on throughout the village. All would rise on their hind-feet and bob up and down, at the same time giving the peculiar cry. This performance they repeat whenever they are happy.
Pezpeza's town was now quite populous. But he was not the mayor; he did not get any credit for the founding of the town; at least as far as the Red people could observe. Their life and government seemed to be highly democratic. Usually the concentration of population produced a certain weed which provided abundance of food for them. But under some conditions it will not grow; and in that case, as soon as the native buffalo- grass is eaten up the town is threatened with a famine, and the inhabitants are compelled to seek food at a distance from their houses. This is quite opposed to the habit and safety of the helpless little people. Finally the only alternative will be the desertion of the town.
Thus it happened that Pezpeza, when the buffalo-grass was all gone about his place, began to realize the necessity of finding a new home. The ground was not adapted to the crop that generally grew in a prairie- dog town. One morning he was compelled to go beyond the limits of the village to get his breakfast, and all at once the thought of going off in search of a good town-site seized him strongly. He consulted no one, not even his best friend, the owl. He simply ran away up the river.

The buffalo-trails were many and well beaten. He followed one of them he knew not whither. The herald soon discovered his departure and again followed his friend. Pezpeza was glad to see him fly past and take the lead, as usual.
The trail now led them to the brow of the table - land. Below them, along the river- bottoms, great herds of buffalo grazed among the shady cottonwood groves, and the path led down the slope. It was safer for the little town-maker to get among the big, burly bison, for the wolf does not go among them at such times. It is usually just be- yond the herd that he peeps from behind the hills, watching for a chance to attack an isolated cow.
The buffalo did not pay any attention to the little fellow running on the trail and al- most under their feet. They even allowed the herald to perch upon an old bull's back in order to keep within sight of his friend. Through the great herd the two proceeded. It was hot, and the grass was all eaten off close to the ground. There was no food for the little traveller.
He had descried a fair plateau on the opposite side of the Owl River as he came down the hill, and his mind was fixed upon this land. He was heading for the river, but found himself much hampered by the in- creasing number of the buffalo.
At the edge of the bank which marked the old bed of the stream Pezpeza came to a stand-still. Here the trail entered the woods and the bison followed it in single file. As they skirted the bank they passed so near him that their broad backs were almost within his reach, and some of them stopped for a moment to rub themselves against its steep sides. Finally there came an old bull with horns worn almost to the skull. He stopped just below Pezpeza and dug his stumpy horn into the earth wall, and Pezpeza sprang gently upon his back and flattened himself out as thin as he could.
The bull did not suspect that anything unusual had happened. He supposed that what he felt was merely a lump of dirt that he had loosened with his horns, and off he walked quite unconcernedly on the trail towards the river. Many of his people were already crossing, and he followed them. The herald was perched upon the back of another bull, and so the pair crossed the Owl River.
There was a broad meadow-land through which the trail led up on the other side until it lost itself in a sage-bush plain. Here the bison scattered to graze, and many followed the ravines for better grass. Pezpeza let himself slide from the bull's back, who gave a jump and a snort, but it was too late to enter a protest.
The little town-builder now began his work as faithfully as before, and soon founded another large town. But again the misfortunes of life compelled him and his friend to leave the place. Thus they travelled up the river, now upon one side and now the other, and never more than a day's journey. More than once Pezpeza found a mate, and he raised many a family; but, like a true pioneer, he could never remain long in an old and overcrowded town.
His tenth and last home was the beautiful table-land at the junction of Owl River with Lost Creek. As has been described in the beginning, it was a semicircular plain of large extent and commanded a striking view. At the very head of the embankment, which sloped abruptly down to the river level, there stood a number of large grassy mounds, and among them were several peculiar structures composed of poles placed upright in the
ground with others arranged horizontally so as to form a sort of shelter.
The town-maker gave no serious thought to these things. The grass upon the plateau was excellent, and he set to work at once, selecting a site for his home near the centre of the plain, for greater safety. Every day new-comers came, and it was a source of satisfaction to him that his selection was such as every prairie-dog could not but approve. In a few days the town was fairly started.
There arrived one day a family who took up their claim close by Pezpeza's place. In this family there was a pretty maid, according to Pezpeza's notion and fancy. There was no reason why he should not think so, for he was now a widower, a wolf having carried off his faithful mate of several years' standing. It was soon noticed by the other little people that the pretty maid with garments the color of the buffalo-grass in autumn had gone to live with Pezpeza.

Pezpeza's town was now a place of respectable size, well known in all that region. The coyote and gray wolf knew it well; the Red man also, for, as I said in the beginning, their favorite summer camp was not far away, and there they were wont to dance the "sun dance" at every midsummer.
At times the Red men were seen to come and roam, singing, around the large mounds and the curious scaffolds, and before they went away they would place one of their number upon a new scaffold or heap another mound. Still the little people gave no thought to these strange actions.
Many, many of their tribe came from all directions, until Pezpeza's town might al- most be called a city. Many children were born there. The plateau was alive with the little mound-builders, who constantly built their homes farther and farther out, till at last some had built right under the Red men's scaffolds and hard by the large mounds, which were the graves of their dead.
Pezpeza's ground did not yield its usual crop any more. His children were all grown and had homes of their own. For some reason he did not care to go far away, so the old folks simply moved out to the edge of the town Pezpeza was now old and very large and fat. Never had he known for so long a time a happy home as in the town upon the " scaffold plain," as the place was called by the Red people. When they came to visit the graves of their dead they had never troubled the little mound-builders, therefore the old founder of many towns did not think of danger when he built very near to one of the scaffolds, and there were others who did the same.
On a bright autumn morning, early risers among the little people saw one of the Red men standing under a newly built scaffold and wailing loudly. He was naked and painted black. Many of the young people of the town barked at him as he stood there in their midst, and some of the young heralds, disturbed by the noise of his wailing, flew about and alighted upon the scaffolds. When he ceased mourning, he turned about and talked long at the little people and then went away.
The angry mourner reported at the great camp that the prairie-dogs and their owls were desecrating the graves, and it was time that they should be driven away. A council was held, and the next day the Red men came with their dogs and killed many. Their arrows pinned many of them to the ground before they could dodge into their holes. Then they scattered all over the town and remained there, so that none dared to come out. The owls were shot or driven away, and the Red men killed every rattlesnake that they found. It was an awful time! During the night many of the little people went away, deserting their homes.
The next day the same thing happened again, and the Red men even stopped up the entrances to many of the houses with round stones. Again in the night many of the little mound-builders left the town.
On the third day they came and set fire to the plain. After that, in the night, all the remaining population abandoned the town, except only Pezpeza. All this time the founder of the ten towns had remained in- doors. He was old and reluctant to move. At last he emerged with his mate. An awful sight met their eyes. On the blackened plain not one of the great population could be seen. Not one of their many children and grandchildren was there to greet them or to play at " catch- the-laugh " !
As soon as they dared the two old people sought food under the scaffolds, where the grass was not burned. Two Red men arose from behind a grave and let their arrows fly. Alas! the aged leader of the mound-builders was pinned to the ground. His mate barely escaped a similar fate, for the other missed. The herald saw everything that had happened. He cook up his watch from the centre of the ruined town. The sun went down, moonlight flooded the prairie, and he heard the evening call of the coyotes upon Fox Ridge. At last he saw something moving- it was the widowed mate of his friend, running along the trail from the desolate town. He gave one last look about him, then he silently rose and followed her.


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